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ZZZ-RETIRED In Ravaged Mississippi, UUA/UUSC Aid Supports Community Restoration Efforts and UU Fellowships

The UUA's Deb Weiner recently traveled to the Gulf Coast to witness the work of the UUA/UUSC's Gulf Coast Relief Fund.

With the attention paid to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck in late August, 2005, it sometimes seemed as if Mississippi 's needs might be forgotten. How could the devastation be as bad as in New Orleans, I wondered. Upon learning that I would be driving to Biloxi from the Jazz City, a New Orleanian said, "You are going to cry all the way. Cities that used to be there are just gone."

It was stunningly true. Katrina's winds and a thirty foot storm surge virtually wiped out several Mississippi towns. Pass Christian, Moss Point, Pascagoula, Gulfport, and Biloxi all bear the haunting signs of the devastation. Hurricane Katrina destroyed all that made these Gulf Coast cities and towns vibrant. Whether the home was palatial or very modest—and the Mississippi Gulf Coast had both—they are now, most likely, gone or severely damaged. And in the small Unitarian Universalist fellowships in Mississippi, where congregants know that it takes courage to declare yourself to be a Unitarian Universalist, membership in several fellowships has been reduced by half.

"I miss the beauty of the coast....I can't drive down Highway 90 without tearing up,” said one member of the Gulf Coast UU Fellowship. "It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop," said another congregant. "I guess I'm on edge for what people are experiencing, wondering if I am ready or prepared for it, or capable of responding to it the way I think would be most helpful to folks since I am in the middle of it, too. Dealing with other folks' losses and your own....we're wondering what's next."

And then there's the new hurricane season to contend with. "Many people are in the process of rebuilding," said another Gulf Coast fellowship member, "but many others are waiting to rebuild 'til this hurricane season is over, and wondering how much further the water will come this time. We are in a sort of war zone because of the devastation around us. Even if you are lucky and your house is OK, you go out on Highway 90 and pass through this devastation, and it has a psychological effect on you. You have to grieve for people that have lost so much. The storm took away our security."

The Gulf Coast UU Fellowship once numbered nearly thirty members but now has thirteen. As in New Orleans and throughout the Mississippi coast, people left for higher ground, for safety, for shelter. So in addition to worrying about rebuilding and the coming hurricane season, the UUs of the Gulf Coast also worry if they can keep Unitarian Universalism alive. For now, the members have made the decision to sell their fellowship's land—too close to the flood zone—and rent a building in the center of town, where they will be able to hold meetings, rent the space for community events, and have a presence on a busy street. They hope to attract new members to the congregation, although they acknowledge that liberal religion is not something that will ever have a strong presence in southern Mississippi.

In Biloxi, where huge ocean-side gambling casinos once lined a coast now littered with the wreckage of high rise buildings and boats, restoration takes a different form from that in New Orleans. Interestingly, community agencies sprang up faster in Mississippi than they did in New Orleans. There is a sense that the groups who organized knew from the start that aid from the government would be inadequate or not forthcoming any time soon.

There are real heroes here: ordinary people who, supported by the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund, are doing remarkable things to restore Mississippi communities. Take East Biloxi Councilman Bill Stallworth. The only African American council man in Biloxi, East Biloxi is Stallworth's home, and he is determined to not let it go. Stallworth organized the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center (EBCRC) and set out to map every domicile in East Biloxi and to conduct a door to door assessment of the properties in need of repair. "4,000 homes were wiped out," Stallworth said, "and 4,000 more are in need of repair. We've done 1,500 to 2,000 clean and guts (of houses that can be repaired) and are starting the last portion of the grid where there will be more homes....and we have about 300-400 ready to start the next phase of reconstruction, de-molding and sheet rocking."

"We couldn't have done this work without you," said Stallworth. "Your initial $15,000 grant kept us operational for a long while....we put filing systems in place, developed a database, and will soon be working to hire a staff coordinator for our work."

EBCRC is supported by Hands On Gulf Coast, a subsidiary of Hands On America, in carrying out its restoration work. The results show what dogged determination and volunteerism can achieve. Hands On, also funded through the UUA/UUSC fund, is like a small city operating out of a donated church community center. The operation currently has about 125 volunteers working in the Biloxi area on a variety of projects. Community meals are prepared in the air conditioned community center and many of the volunteers pitch tents or build small compartments where their sleeping bags and mattresses line up on the running track upstairs. Outside, for those willing to brave the ninety-degree heat or the rain, dozens of other tents are pitched for additional volunteers. Animals rescued from damaged houses are also cared for at the Hands On compound, which also has a washer and drier, a tool shed, donated work clothes, and a small television for showing movies to the volunteers.

UU seminarian Jinnie Trabulsi, a graduate of Iliff School of Theology, heard the call to come to the Gulf Coast after Katrina struck. Initially volunteering with the Red Cross, Tribulsi stayed on and, until the end of June, works out of the Hands On center, focusing her time with community aid agencies supported through the UUA/UUSC fund and offering support to the Gulf Coast UU fellowship.

The huge casinos are now starting to rebuild, and condos are being reconstructed as well. While these projects bring revenue back to the coast, they also bring problems. Much of the original resident base of the city has left the area, seeking refuge inland (some estimates put the attrition at more than fifty percent). Builders have hired immigrant labor, and too often these workers are mistreated and cheated out of the compensation to which they are entitled.

Enter Victoria Cintra, Director of the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) and another Gulf Coast Relief Fund grantee. Cintra, a native of Cuba, had four immigrant workers in her office when we visited and in Spanish, interviewed them and learned that they had been underpaid by the man who hired them. One worker who was injured on the job was denied medical care by his boss. On the spot, Cintra info rmed the workers of their rights, arranged for a translator to interview the injured man, and brought a lawyer into the office to begin the process of applying for just compensation for the workers.

Cintra is appalled by the abuses she sees as southern Mississippi struggles to rebuild. She pickets gambling resorts and carries out "shame campaigns" to recover back wages for immigrants. She knows of immigrant workers living in warehouses, in tents in the woods, in cars, without any access to health care or schools. And she is deeply concerned that nationally-funded aid agencies are targeting the immigrant population who seek shelter, rather than going after contractors who treat immigrant labor unfairly. This, too, is part of the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina: workers from other countries coming to America to fill a need, seeking a better life, and being exploited. The Gulf Coast Relief Fund has provided valuable assistance to combat this abuse.

All across the gulf area, house gutting and de-molding must be a priority if existing housing stock is to be saved. In Pascagoula, the Gulf Coast Missionary Baptist District Association encompasses thirty churches overseen by the Rev. Larry Hawkins, pastor of the Union Baptist Church  in Pascagoula and Moderator of the Association. Hawkins admits that he never thought he would become a building contractor, but he and his ministerial colleagues have been called to new challenges as they struggle to aid their parishioners and others in the gulf region. Working with the churches in their district, they have evaluated the needs of those most at risk and set up groups of interfaith volunteers who operate out of the Union Baptist Church of Pascagoula's community center. This effort, too, is funded by the UUA-UUSC Fund ($40,000); money has been used to purchase work tools and materials for home rebuilding.

"We are still gutting houses, but we are also building houses where needed,” Hawkins said. "We are trying to respond to whatever needs arise. The U.S. Navy ship Me sa Verde is docked near here, and the crew is helping us to do a home for church members....we provide building materials and tools, and they give us labor. Anyone we can find who will give us consistent labor, we like it. These people in the coast lost everything, and we need help to return these people to their homes.”

Volunteers are housed in the church community center, and all work orders flow out of that building. Hawkins knows that the effort will have to continue for years: "The Mississippi Gulf Coast hadn't had a major hurricane in more than twenty five years,” he said. "People will leave now if they sense a hurricane coming. And soon, you will start seeing nervous breakdowns and emotional snapping as a result of the stress."

In Mississippi, the hurricane damage has been grim, but most communities have a cohesive plan for the recovery effort. Encouraging as this is, the specter of June 1, the start of the 2006 hurricane season, loomed large. Every time that date was mentioned, people visibly flinched. There's a sense that there will be a need for disaster relief in the Mississippi Gulf communities for many years to come...even without knowing what surprises this summer may hold. Soon, a new Gulf Coast Relief Fund-supported position to coordinate relief in Mississippi will be in place, adding opportunities for volunteers to come to the once-beautiful Mississippi coast and help people return to their communities and their homes.